Celebrated hip hop rapper Kendrick Lamar and his album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” are poised to make history at Monday’s 58th Grammy awards. Giving voice to the underside of Black communities in which marginalized persons seek to establish a sense of identity and dignity, Lamar has already broken a record with his nine nominations. He is now the most Grammy-nominated hip hop artiste in a single year.
Rap and reggae artistes claim to make it real. That is, they do not create. They narrate life in their communities, and allow music to signify life on the ground, in which there is violence against Black bodies—bodies marked as inferior—as well as racism, overt sexuality, gender inequality, the hardships of tenement housing and a culture of poverty.
Rap, since the 1980s, creates worldviews that draw on the Black experience as source, while reggae, starting a decade earlier, focuses on African roots and Jamaican culture.
Although women deferred to men in the early years of reggae and rap, the airwaves have recently exploded with reggae singer and disc jockey, Queen Ifrica, chanting that children are to be protected and valued, while British singer and actress, Joss Stone, who was selected by Billboard Magazine as reggae artiste of 2015, chants about “water for your soul.”
Rappers and reggae artistes are at their best when they work on behalf of their communities, and when they become prophets and truth tellers who allow their music to become a medium of liberation for persons whose bodies are labeled property.
Reggae and rap artistes dream of an alternative reality. They use music as a conduit for a Black public narrative that brings to consciousness and exposes the trickery of racist violence that seeks to keep things the way they are. These artistes point out that those who wield power in the public sphere often deceive the poor and blame them for creating contexts in which the future of children is blighted and education becomes a tool in the service of the status quo.
There is a similarity between reggae and rap music and the sorrow songs of enslaved persons during the era of slavery; both are beyond the reach of oppressors. A present danger, however, is that as these musical art forms become mainstreamed and commercialized, the interests and needs of the poor and victimized are sacrificed for profit and popularity.
Kendrick Lamar seems to transcend the temptation to forget the poor as he embraces fame and popularity. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is the most critically acclaimed album of 2015, having sold more than 750,000 copies and having been streamed 375 million times. In spite of this notoriety, Mr. Lamar’s four-times, Grammy-nominated anthem for justice, “Alright,” became a theme song for Black Lives Matter groups throughout the nation.
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